Translation is never easy but I have a feeling that translating poetry is even more difficult than normal. There is the cadence of the poem and all the hidden meanings behind word usage to consider. I don’t envy a translator in general, but it must take a special kind of professional to throw themselves into the poetry of another language and try to come out with something that makes sense in your own language.
This year I’ve read two books of translated poetry. Luckily, each book fit for both my personal challenge of Reading Nobel Women and either the Read Harder or Litsy A to Z challenges this year.
I particularly appreciate Madwomen for this. The book contains some notes on the efforts of the translator, the way the poems were compiled, and a short biography of the Gabriela Mistral. The whole book is available on pdf from the Global Public Library here. The collection is written with both the English translation and the original text, which I thought was a great touch.
Here’s my favorite poem:
The little creatures know by the air,
and the ten fountains by the great shout,
that Agamemnon cast on the pyre
like cypress-pine or common cress
the lamb that slept in my arms,
that suckled my milk like a fawn
and, from my milk, was lithe and white.
The ragged shout of the crowd came
without a breeze to these thousand doors,
when her back the color of the myrtles
fell to the flame and the flame took her.
The crowd howls against heaven
as if drunk, whipped up by the fire,
the name of its King and not that of my lamb,
it dances and belches victory shouts,
swarms like ants, deafened by drums,
belches, dances, bellowing to its gods,
and she, Iphigenia, falls, falls, falls,
while I, walled in so near the pyre,
claw at the bolted palace doors.
But I see, I see, I see, I see,
despite the leagues and clouds of smoke,
I see the flames of the bonfire leap
like kids that clamber up or fall
or twisted curtains of smoke and fire
that hide and disclose the Lamb to me
and they are her arms like a gull’s in flight,
they are her tresses of burning sighs
and I see shoulders and that graceful neck.
And the icy Bear who brought me to bed
gazes at heaven breathing the tall flame.
The crowd embroiders the whole coast
like dark thread, more sated now, face to the wind,
drooling, panting the name of its gods.
But here, behind my deadbolts, I
curse with my body and all my powers
the gods that give and snatch away
and the Royal Leopard who sires and slays.
The teeming fountains know more than he.
Only the huddled slaves hear me.
Pure the cry I must give for the gods to hear
if their ears are not dead shells
and their breasts not frozen shields
and their jealousy not mere roadway dust.
My Iphigenia, broken and wasted,
made and unmade, walks with pure
flame, whirling blues and golds
and the Leopard King, Agamemnon, face
swollen with pride at his lunatic triumph,
now wheels to the wind and the sailing ships,
at once victor and vanquished.
Never more let me see you, never more let me sleep
touching your temples; never more open
these my doors and tear from my arms
Electra and Orestes for another pyre.
I feel as if another soul rises from me
and another flesh comes to me
as to a tree, and that the flames
of Iphigenia overtake me and clothe me.
May I never see you again, King of men,
don’t ever again climb the stairs where
our children played in a triangle of light.
Don’t bring me your drummed-up glory,
or your chariots groaning with trophies,
nor will you come to lead me on my knees
toward your gods that howl, seizing
with the chops of wolves the fl sh of children.
Iphigenia’s flame already recedes,
wears thin, laps its own ashes.
I will walk, unknowing, my road
toward the sea bearing in these hands,
like an ashen fish, my daughter,
lighter now than her tresses,
and from this coal we all will burn,
Agamemnon, unto the last day:
your palace, your myrtles, your doves,
with a King of men and a mad Queen.
Map would also have fit in Read Harder’s Task 23 this year and both books started with the letter M, so I just separated them. This turned into my Letter M for Litsy A to Z, though I could just as easily have reversed them. I was not originally sure if this one was going to be themed in love or not, which is why I chose this one for Litsy. It turned out to be a complete collection Szymborska’s work. It began a little slow and then turned brilliant. I have a list of favorites in the original review here. One of those listed is also available on Poetry Foundation, so I thought I’d share it: